Broward County

Premature posting of election results was mistake, not a crime

Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes
Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes Miami Herald File/2012

Broward prosecutors announced Wednesday that no one will be criminally charged for posting election results before polls closed on primary night.

VR Systems, a contractor for the Broward Supervisor of Elections, took responsibility after results from early voting and absentee ballots were posted about 30 minutes before polls closed Aug. 30.

It is a felony to release results while voters are still casting ballots. However, assistant state attorney Timothy Donnelly concluded that while results were negligently posted early, there was no evidence that it was intentional.

“There is insufficient evidence that anyone purposely intended to post any election results prior to the closing of the polls, in violation of the criminal statutes…” he wrote in a memo released Wednesday. “It is unfortunate that some election results were reported early and other election results were delayed and reported late. Parties have promised to take measures to insure that this does not happen again.”

State law says that “any supervisor of elections, deputy supervisor of elections, canvassing board member, election board member or election employee who releases the results of any election prior to the closing of the polls in that county on election day commits a felony of the third degree.”

Although that statute language doesn’t address intent, the goal of the law is to prevent elections officials from posting results early in an effort to sway turnout. In the case of Broward primary night, there was no evidence of intent when results were posted near the end of a rainy low-turnout primary night.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner contacted Broward State Attorney Mike Satz on primary night seeking an investigation. Detzner called the early release of results “unacceptable.”

VR Systems, a contractor that handles online results for Broward, took responsibility that night. In an affidavit the next day, VR Systems CEO Mindy Perkins explained what happened leading to the early release of results. Donnelly recapped what led to the error in his memo:

On the afternoon of the primary, a Broward Supervisor of Elections employee contacted VR Systems to ask that the election night results link be posted online.

James Hilburn, a VR technician, mistakenly connected the preview election results link with the Supervisor of Elections website.

At 6:30 p.m., when a county elections employee, Joseph D’Alessandro, loaded up the file to preview the information, the file accidentally posted live, showing absentee and early-vote results.

An employee at the Sun Sentinel called the elections office. (The Miami Herald also tweeted about the early posting of results, although that wasn’t included in the state attorney memo.) The problem was corrected at about 6:50 p.m. However, viewers who had already accessed the early results could continue to see them until 7:23 p.m. The problem led to a server crash, temporarily suspending the reporting of results in multiple counties. Broward was one of the last counties to post results, according to the Broward state attorney’s memo.

Donnelly wrote that his charging decision didn’t rely on the fact that Hilburn is technically a vendor — the statute refers to elections employees. He said that it was clear that the vendor, as well as the Broward employee, never intended for results to post early.

The majority of Florida counties use VR Systems as a contractor. The Broward Supervisor of Elections pays VR Systems $77,300 a year to create and maintain the website.

Amid the problems with the website on primary night, Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes coasted to a landslide victory.

Snipes said that Detzner should have had the courtesy to speak with her before he sought out an investigation.

“I think the person who requested the investigation jumped the gun,” she said. “I was treated unfairly. I think that was a rush to judgment — I should have at least had the courtesy of a conversation. That is the least you can do for somebody you work with.”

The website problems on primary night places more pressure on VR Systems and Broward to pull off an error-free Election Day and night Nov. 8th, when Florida will draw international attention for the presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Broward County has about 1.2 million voters, including the largest contingent of Democratic voters in the state.